On being in limbo

This post by Cat Lupton strikes me, squarely. It articulates so well where I have been myself, and captures concisely what draws me, like her, to the Dark Mountain Project. What Cat calls a place between stories is what I have in my own mind been referring to by the shorthand of ‘being in limbo’.

I owe my life to the wonders of our modern, technologically-advanced civilisation. Multiple medical issues at birth led to my spending three weeks in a premature infants unit, where I was well looked after by science and medicine. I survived and then thrived, without any of the disabilities that were predicted for me. I was spared the dangers that nature had intended, and sent home to the blanketing embrace of a suburban middle-class American, Irish Catholic upbringing that never, ever questioned its own assumptions.

I remember my mother sitting me down once when I was a child to tell me the story of my birth, with all its drama and happy outcome. She lingered on one detail, her gravity imparting its special significance: the doctor at the delivery had baptised me at her request, before whisking me away to an incubator for medical treatment. My survival was uncertain and it was incredibly  important to her that if I died, I should die as a Catholic baby. The unacceptable alternative was limbo.

The Vatican defines limbo as “a state which includes the souls of infants who die subject to original sin and without baptism, and who, therefore, neither merit the beatific vision, nor yet are subjected to any punishment.” It recanted this theological position in 2007, but when I was young, limbo was still a recognised plank in the Catholic platform. The mythology of limbo described an infinite blank stasis that was almost more threatening than the torments of hell, which at least promised the sensational thrill of divine retribution. In limbo, there was no purpose, no meaning, and no narrative – only a mysterious in-betweenness beyond comprehension.

This alternative fate in limbo lay vividly in the background of my imagination when my mother told me my birth story, with its sentimental plotline around the emergency baptism. She wanted me to understand that the ultimate guarantee of my personal wellbeing had been provided at my arrival. Baptism legitimized the value of my existence, it ensured my role as a character in the Christian story of salvation, and it protected me from the terrible, luckless fate suffered by those countless other babies, those limbo babies, whose parents clearly hadn’t cared for them as well and responsibly as mine did.

I’ve been wrestling with this my entire life, as though I had been draped with a net, and pinned into a story of someone else’s telling. For large swathes of time I’ve gone still, like an animal in captivity that lies motionless, listless, obedient. Other times a small glowing ember inside me flares up, leading me to wreak havoc and alarm my keepers. I shred the net a little bit more every time. I abandoned Christianity years ago, and throughout the extended adolescent rebellion of my adulthood I’ve been systematically dismantling the other narratives that contain me. It resonates with me, when the DMP describes the converging crises faced by us in the 21st century, and asks

in what ways are these crises rooted in our cultural assumptions, the stories we have told for generations and the ways in which we have seen the world? How do we disentangle ourselves from those assumptions? 22 June 2010

What I’ve not yet been able to do is find a narrative with which to replace the ones I am dismantling. Like Cat, I’m in a space between stories. DMP cofounder Dougald once wrote:

I’ve come to see part of the strength of Dark Mountain as being the lack of a simple message….there’s a lot of value in inviting people to slow down, to reflect on the situation without framing it as a problem that has a solution, but rather as a complex predicament which we have to live with… 5 October 2010

I like to think of the Dark Mountain Project as an inviting, relaxed version of being in limbo, one that involves poetry, singing, and gathering about bonfires with drink in hand. Really not so bad as my mother made it out to be.

8 thoughts on “On being in limbo

  1. You describe an apprenticeship at negative capability. This is something to celebrate, once we can see the connection.

    We chafe at the confining stories while at the same time we mourn having lost them for ourselves. Those who maintain the old stories cannot imagine life without them – something Catherine alludes to also. Those of us who, on hearing the endings, cannot accept the handy conclusions they promise are willing to risk alienation and the disillusionment of life lived without easy answers.

    If we maintain that stance – without falling for some other equally tidy alternative, say whatever culturally sanctioned “rebellion” is in fashion, we are developing negative capability – we accumulate strengths with which to fight the urge to settle for some “dream.” It is still difficult to realize that something which has caused us, and those we care about, so much pain could be a gift.

    The really old stories, mostly discounted today as “fairy tales” and “myths,” tend to speak to these situations. It’s not surprising since they were from a time before the illusion of perfectibility came to dominate.

    Funny how the story of Limbo resonates for you. Your mother’s reassuring tale of salvation you saw as a promise of an immersion in a limbo worse than any Hell. In the end, the unmoored state of limbo you chose to enter and remain in may have given you just what you needed to break the bonds of controlling stories.

    This is a great instinct to have. It often frustrates when we have tried to settle into some story we’ve crafted for ourselves that attempts to get past us unawares. We read our own resistance then as a betrayal. It’ s us who are betraying then and that instinct that holds us honest.

    In a world of “complex predicament which we have to live with…” there is nothing more important than negative capability. Before we can find where we do stand we need to clear away all of the conflicting roles pushed on us. It’s no small thing to find you have the courage to resist, even, and especially, without some alternative “grand narrative” to lean on.

  2. Grace of Paul Kingsnorth’s recommendation, I’m delighted to have found your blog, and very much enjoyed this reflection on your own limbo between stories kicking off from mine. It fascinates me, what mixtures of circumstance and temperament lead some people to become so embedded in stories that to lose them would be to lose their entire identity, and people who just know they’ve wound up in someone else’s script, and have to rewrite in order to discover themselves.

    I’m looking forward to catching up properly with your other posts, and really hope that you’ll keep writing, and unfolding this voice that’s yours. The Artist’s Way is a great resource, btw, if you’re grappling with creative blocks and uncertainty.

    All best


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